The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle: Australian Spin-Doctor Hired as Tories Target work-shy ‘Scroungers’ in UK.

Lynton Crosby, the spin doctor responsible for some of the nastiest politicking of the Howard Government in Australia during the era of Right-wing control between 1996 and 2007, has been hired by the Tory Party in the UK in the hope he can revive the British Government’s flagging fortunes ahead of the next election there.  The Howard Era spin merchant has form in Britain, having been involved in an anti-immigration campaign that apparently failed to win the Conservative Party the support it needed in 2005, when Labour managed to cling to power in the dying days of Tony Blair’s tenure as leader.

Not having heard that Crosby was again making waves at the behest of the Tories in the Northern hemisphere, my attention was drawn to his return to National politics in the UK in a roundabout way by a tweet.  Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) retweeted the following:

@georgeeaton Never thought the Tories would stoop so low as to depict the unemployed as scroungers with their feet up.

A link brought up Eaton’s New Statesman bit, ‘Tories Shameful New Ad Campaign Against Scroungers’.

My interest was piqued because this is all too familiar. For anyone who has lived through the past fifteen years of politics in Australia, the politics of punishment and alienation has become commonplace. And a primary target for this vitriol, during the long years of the Howard Government, were the unemployed.

‘Dole-bludgers’ – the term passed into everyday Australian vernacular, which is a measure of the success of this ugly sort of politicking during the decade of Right-wing power this country endured for a decade from the middle of the 1990s.

So when I saw the tweet, and then the piece it was based on, I was at once struck, with a kind of creeping horror (I’m a citizen of the UK as well as Australia) by the similarity between this new meme from Britain’s ‘nasty party’ and the long-standing, and normalised, attitude of Australia’s Right towards the unemployed. ‘Scroungers’ is a neat corollary in British vernacular for the Australian colloquialism ‘Bludgers.’ Otherwise it appeared the sentiment and the PR were identical.

I didn’t immediately suspect a direct correspondence.  This sort of cross-fertilisation between parties of the Right in Western countries is not unusual – it seems to occur by a sort of inter-continental ideological osmosis.  After all, the Liberal Party, Australia’s ‘conservatives’, have been overcome of late with a rash of sentiments and a set of rhetorical devices that are nothing if not an echo of the Tea Party wing of the United States’ GOP.

One response to the tweet from @georgeeaton pointed out that perhaps it was unsurprising the Tories were stooping to denigrating and demonising sections of the population, as immigrants had already been besmirched in previous Conservative campaigns. And thinking about this tweet the penny dropped. I immediately put ‘Lynton Crosby’ and ‘Tories’ and ‘2012’ into Google, and found that Crosby was once again gracing British environs (A couple of the sources on Crosby’s appointment to do electioneering for the Tories that popped up here and here ).

To explain the thought process behind this Google search I should mention that immigrants have long been another target for the Australian Right.  The use of anti-immigration rhetoric, particularly directed at refugees and asylum seekers, was employed first by Australia’s far Right ‘One Nation’ party, and then co-opted by the Howard Government in the late 1990s.  It became ugly quickly – the infamous ‘Children Overboard’ campaign saw the Right asserting asylum seekers arriving by boat had, in a particular incident, callously thrown their children into the sea.  There were pictures of this incident, although it later emerged they had been cropped to create the impression children were being abandoned to the waves.

The denigration of asylum seekers by Australia’s Right wing parties has had enormous effect on policy.  The current ‘wisdom’ deployed by both parties is that strong measures must be taken to deter asylum seekers from attempting the journey to Australia by sea.  As a result camps have been constructed offshore – in other countries – to house asylum seekers, so that they do not develop the impression they will be allowed to stay in Australia upon arrival. Any who do stay are to be issued visas that do not permit the holder to take up work – this is called the ‘no advantage’ policy. For many Australian citizens, myself included, these policies, supported by both Liberal and Labor, are inhumane, cruel, misguided, and a source of shame.

When anti-immigration sentiment was revived in a political way in the United Kingdom during the 2005 election campaign, it was unsurprising, therefore, but more than a little disturbing, to learn that Australian spin-doctor Lynton Crosby had been retained to aid the Tories. Crosby failed, inasmuch as Labor was returned to power, but then had success in 2009 running Boorish Johnson’s Mayoral campaign in London.

Crosby was campaign director for the Liberal Party in Australia’s federal elections from 1996 to 2004, and so presided over a series of election campaigns that brought Australian politics to new depths, from which it has not recovered.  Anti-asylum seeker sentiment (‘Stop the Boats’) and the ostracising of the unemployed were central to the platform on which the Howard Government ran during these successful campaigns.

As mentioned, the politics of the Howard era have not as yet been superseded by a Labor Government that has failed to reverse sentiment on asylum-seekers.  Instead, Labor has taken on a Right-wing stance.  Govt politicians that only a few years ago decried the inhumanity of Conservative calls to ‘deter’ asylum-seekers from attempting the journey to Australia now argue for policies of deterrence. They are attuned with the Right, and condemn the smaller Greens party for its opposition to offshore detention.  Asylum-seekers who have arrived by boat are now living in tents on Nauru in sweltering conditions, in detention that is deliberately set as being of indeterminate length.

‘Dole-bludgers’ – the unemployed – have also suffered as a result of Howard era politicking commandeered during election campaigns by the infamous Spin Doctor Crosby. As part of the Right’s mandate in Australia, unemployment benefit increases barely rose at all over a period of a decade, while wages for the employed and cost of living rose sharply. The object was to stop providing ‘comfortable’ income to the unemployed in order to adequately motivate the work-shy, reduce their timidity. The private ‘Job Network’, which had the job of helping the unemployed find work, replaced public services.  ‘Work for the Dole’ schemes were introduced, so that the unemployed, in order to receive benefits, were forced to work for no proper pay. Finally, those who failed to meet the rigours of the new system (for example if an appointment was missed, or a form not submitted) were ‘Breached’, their unemployment benefits cut off or reduced for months at a time.

So it was that hearing of a new advertising campaign targeting the ‘scroungers’ of Britain, those avoiding work (detailed here) , I immediately thought of Australia’s Rove, Australia’s ‘King of Spin’. And found within about ten seconds that he has been employed to help to run the next election campaign for the UK’s Conservative Party.

All this I mention, of course, as a sort of warning from the Antipodes.  Crosby is heralded as a ‘dark master’ of spin, although his strategies for winning elections are among the cheapest, most obvious and obnoxious imaginable.  They have been effective, though, in Australia, not only in winning elections for the Right, but also in introducing a cultural shift in the political life of the country from which it has not recovered.

The politics of punishment and demonisation have become the norm.  Immigrants are still denigrated in the mainstream media and in a marginally more subtle way by Right-wing politicians.  Asylum-seekers are now condemned for their efforts to flee life-threatening situations in their countries of origin by leaders of both major parties.  And conditions for those out of work have improved little despite five years of Labor Government following the demise of the fairly extreme Right Howard era.

Potential damage to political culture aside, it’s a horrifying thought that one man might, for political gain, bring additional hardship to bear to those already struggling the most in not one but two populations.